Baseball Notebook: UK Sets School Strikeout Record

May 27, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Behind its pair of dynamic left-handed weekend starters, the Kentucky baseball team finished the 2009 season with a school-record 523 strikeouts, eclipsing the previous school record of 502 punch-outs, set during the 1995 campaign.

Kentucky (28-26, 12-18 Southeastern Conference) finished the season ninth-place in the rugged SEC, just half a game behind eighth-place Vanderbilt for the final spot in the conference tournament. The Wildcats finished the season strong and needed a win at No. 11 Florida on the final day of the regular season and a Vanderbilt loss to clinch a spot in the post-season. UK, ranked No. 46 in the NCAA’s selection Monday RPI, got the Vanderbilt loss, but the Gators ended UK’s post-season hopes with a 13-9 win in Gainesville. The Wildcats went 6-4 over the last 10 games, including series wins in de-facto elimination matchups with Tennessee and Auburn.

Led by junior lefty James Paxton and senior southpaw Chris Rusin, the Wildcats fanned a total of 523 in 475 innings, issuing just 202 walks. Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound native of Ladner, British Columbia, led the club with 115 strikeouts in just 78.1 innings. Paxton (5-3, 5.86 ERA) issued just 20 walks and held opponents to a .266 average. Most impressively, Paxton struck out an average of 13.22 hitters per nine innings, ranking third-best in college baseball, just behind San Diego State ace Steven Strasburg’s 15.88 strikeouts per nine innings. Paxton finished the season ranked 10th in college baseball with 115 strikeouts, checking in fifth all-time in UK season history.

Rusin, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound native of Canton, Mich., fanned 108 in 94.1 innings, issuing 27 walks and holding opponents to a .258 average. Rusin (7-4, 4.20 ERA) hurled four complete games, with his 108 strikeouts ranking 14th-best in the NCAA. Rusin’s 108 strikeouts ranked tied for seventh-best in UK season history. In his sparkling four-year career, Rusin – a 2008 first-team All-SEC starter – earned a 23-11 record and a 4.14 ERA, striking out 274 in 302.1 innings. Rusin’s 23 career wins ranks tied with Greg Dombrowski (2005-08) and Lorhn Frazier (1990-93) for second-best all-time in Kentucky annals and his 274 strikeouts rank second-best in UK career history. Rusin’s 302.1 innings rank third-most in Kentucky career history.

Freshman right-hander Alex Meyer also contributed to the strikeout party as the third-leg of the UK weekend rotation. Meyer, a 6-foot-8, 205-pounder, finished with 80 strikeouts in 59.2 innings, allowing only 53 hits and a .239 opponent batting average. Meyer, tabbed the second-best freshman in college baseball in the preseason by Baseball America, ranked seventh in college baseball with 12.06 strikeouts per nine innings.

Paxton Tabbed as No. 20 Pick in First Round by Baseball America
Kentucky junior left-hander James Paxton has been tabbed to go No. 20 overall in the first-round of the 2009 MLB Draft in a mock draft conducted and released by Baseball America in the June 1 issue.

Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, had a breakout season in his first full year as a weekend starter for the Wildcats. The dynamic lefty finished the season third in the NCAA with 13.22 strikeouts per nine innings, fanning 115 in 78.1 innings. The Ladner, British Columbia native, has been tabbed the seventh-best left-handed pitcher available in the 2009 MLB Draft and as the third-best college lefty available.

In the Baseball America mock draft, San Diego State righty Steven Starsburg is picked to go first overall to the Washington Nationals. Paxton was tabbed as going 20th overall in the first round to the Toronto Blue Jays. If Paxton were to be picked in the first round, it would mark the highest UK player drafted since 2008 MLB World Series Champion Joe Blanton was picked with the 24th overall pick in the 2002 MLB Draft.

The detailed Baseball America issue breaks down the draft by position, including an intense break-down of Paxton and his development into a top college prospect.

“Paxton was a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder with an 86-87 mph fastball and some feel for a breaking ball when Kentucky recruited him out of a British Columbia high school,” Baseball America reported in the positional breakdown. “Three years, three inches and 30 pounds later, he has shown a 93-94 mph fastball throughout the spring. He has peaked at 97, and his heater also has very good run and sink. He throws with a clean arm action and little effort. Paxton also has transformed his breaking pitch from a slurve into a true curveball.

“On his best days, he'll show a plus-plus fastball, an above-average curveball and good command. He also has a changeup that has its moments, though he doesn't use it often. He's one of the youngest college juniors in the draft—he won't turn 21 until November—suggesting that he has even more room for improvement. Anonymous a year ago, Paxton has pitched himself into first-round consideration.”

Why Don’t You Finish Strong
With Kentucky facing a pressure-laded final month of the season, Kentucky needed a bevy of clutch hits from its lineup. Several players stood out over the final games of the year for their offensive production, including freshman Chad Wright, Cory Farris, Braden Kapteyn and Andy Burns. Veterans Marcus Nidiffer and Chris Wade also swung a hot stick towards the final part of the 2009 season.

Wright, a freshman out of Paducah, Ky., had a dynamic freshman season, batting .343 (62-for-181) with eight doubles, one triple and four homers, driving in 23 RBI and stealing 10-of-12 bases. In the final series of the year at No. 11 Florida, Wright attempted to put UK on his back, batting .636 (7-for-11) with two doubles and a homer in three games, drawing two walks and not striking out. One of Wright’s most remarkable plays will not show up in a box score, as Wright robbed a game-tying grand slam with no outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, climbing the wall in left field and extending his entire glove arm over the fence to keep UK’s post-season hopes alive. 

Farris, an outfielder from Florence, Ky., secure a corner outfield starting spot late in the year with an amazing final five games. Farris started the last five games of the year, batting .476 (10-for-21) with three doubles, two homers and seven RBI, with his five extra-base hits marking the first extra-base knocks of his career.

Kapteyn, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder broke out offensively and as UK’s closer during the 2009 season, finishing the year leading UK with 11 doubles and hitting .319 (45-for-141) with four homers and 27 RBI. On the mound, Kapteyn led UK with four saves and a 5-0 record, striking out 42 in 32.2 innings. In UK’s last five games – all started by Kapteyn – the slugger batted .409 (9-for-22) with six runs, three doubles, one homer and six RBI. Over the last 12 games for Kapteyn, he hit .341 (15-for-44) with four doubles, three homers and 14 RBI.

Nidiffer, UK’s steady everyday catcher, was off to a breakout start to the season, leading the Southeastern Conference in batting entering the first SEC series of the year, at No. 3 LSU. Nidiffer had a good series vs. the Tigers, but fractured the thumb on his left catching hand, making offense and defense challenging. Due to the young nature of the UK club – particularly behind the plate – Nidiffer played through the pain and played in 50 of UK’s 54 games, batting .312 (49-for-157) with six doubles, 10 homers and 32 RBI. Finally healthy towards the end of the year, Nidiffer batted .444 (4-for-9) with five runs scored, five RBI and three home runs – one in each game – during UK’s three-game set at No. 11 Florida. Over the last 20 games of the year, Nidiffer batted .316 (18-for-57) with three doubles and five homers. In his last 10 games, the Bristol, Tenn., native hit .393 (11-for-28) with a team-high 15 runs scored and five homers.

Wade, UK’s sophomore shortstop and 2009 second-team All-SEC selection at the keystone position, had an excellent year, batting .313 (56-for-179) with 10 doubles and six homers, driving in 42 RBI and stealing 14-of-17 bases. Wade batted .421 (8-for-19) with five RBI over the final five games of the year, adding a .379 (22-for-58) average over the final 16 games of the year, doubling four times and driving in 14 RBI.

Ryan Strieby Leading Double A Eastern League in Home Runs
Former Kentucky standout Ryan Strieby, the 2006 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, has jumped out to an excellent start in his first season playing at the double-A Eastern League, belting a league-leading 12 homers in 44 games.

Strieby, who helped led UK to its first SEC Championship in program history, has hit .277 (41-for-148) while playing at the double-A level for the first time in his career. Strieby leads the Eastern League with 12 homers, coming just a homer shy of leading all double-A minor league levels in homers, as Rhyne Hughes and Greg Halman each pace the double-A Southern League with 13 homers. Strieby, playing with the Erie SeaWolves, has added 34 runs scored and seven doubles, driving in 33 RBI and drawing 29 walks. Strieby, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-handed hitter, has reached base at a .408 clip and slugged .568.

The reigning Detroit Tigers Minor League Player of the Year, Strieby is coming off a breakout year at high A, batting .278 with 19 doubles, seven triples, a league-leading 29 homers and 94 RBI. Strieby led the high A Florida State League in homers, despite missing all of August due to a minor injury. A 2008 FSL All-Star, Strieby was named the best power hitter in the Tigers system at the end of the year by Baseball America.

In his lone year with the Wildcats, Strieby became the first SEC Player of the Year from Kentucky, leading UK in doubles (22), homers (20), RBI (77), total bases (164), on-base percentage (.473) and slugging (.704). Led the SEC in doubles, RBI, slugging, on-base percentage, ranking third in homers and seventh in runs scored. Strieby, a native of Brier, Wash., was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2006 MLB Draft by the Tigers.

Catcher Sean Coughlin Promoted to Double A
Former star Kentucky catcher Sean Coughlin, a 2007 first-team All-American, has been promoted to the double A Mobile BayBears of the Southern League.

Coughlin, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound backstop, has seen action in 11 games at the double A level, cranking out two doubles and one homer. The Morrison, Colo., native started the year on the same team as former UK teammate and 2008 first-team All-American Collin Cowgill on the high A Visalia Rawhide. Coughlin got off to a good start, batting .260 (27-for-104) in his first 27 games, adding seven doubles, four homers and 20 RBI. Last season, Coughlin batted .240 (87-for-363) with 24 doubles, 15 homers and 81 RBI, earning mid-season and post-season All-Star accolades.

Cowgill, a Lexington native and former Kentucky High School Mr. Baseball, has also had a good start to his first full season at the high A level, batting .278 (45-for-162) with five doubles, five triples and five homers, driving in 29 RBI. Cowgill, a 2008 first-team All-Southeastern Conference outfielder, has swiped 6-of-8 bases and scored 33 runs.